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The Man Who Heard It All | The Nation

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The Man Who Heard It All

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Brahms may give us pause, as well, in another way. Turning to the composer's First String Quartet, Taruskin shows how the effect of the opening movement "turns on tinycraft, on minute motivic relations." This elicits his admiration and expository skills, finely on display over ten pages. But it also provokes some cautionary questions. If, as he posits, the rewards of Brahms's chamber music include "the self-satisfaction of belonging to a self-defined elite," do these works, by their difficulty, "foster social division"? And if such anxieties are awakened by an accessible Romantic composer such as Brahms, they are even more at stake when Taruskin moves on to Modernists like Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt. (Schoenberg, born in 1874, dreamed that workers would one day hum his twelve-tone compositions; Babbitt, born in 1916 and shorn of utopian illusions, infamously raised the question "Who Cares If You Listen?" the title of his 1958 article in High Fidelity.)

About the Author

Paul Griffiths
Paul Griffiths is the author of several books on music, including, most recently, The Penguin Companion to Classical...

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It is, however, a pretty ragtag elite that turns out for a Babbitt performance in New York--students, professional musicians, an assortment of people who share only a passion for the composer, friends of the performers, the odd writer or visual artist, perhaps two critics and some zealous supporters of whatever hall is being used. Unlike a true elite, this audience does not gain any privileges within society--which is not to say that privileges (of education, of leisure) may not be required for most of them to be there. Moreover, difficult music is far from a leading cause of "social division" in the contemporary West. Indeed, talk of "elite genres," a term Taruskin uses very early, may distract attention from the real sources of inequality.

Such factors are surely implicated when, as Taruskin observes, sales of "classical" recordings represent only 3 percent of the market, to which one might add that the sector of the population regularly attending "classical" concerts is smaller still. As a symptom of social division, not a cause, this must alert us to severe failures in our culture. And how many, one may wonder, will read through the nearly 4,000 pages of this book? Here is more irony, more sadness in the grandeur, for the fate of this majestic river of prose, full of so many fascinating eddies but with its main currents going along strong, is most likely to be sampled piecemeal by students in need of a quick drink for the purposes of an assignment. At least they will find the water clear and sustaining.

The diminishing size of the audience very much impinges on Taruskin's argument with respect to music since Brahms, and even a little before. As he sees it, composers entering the fully developed world of "classical" music--a world run not by popes, emperors, dukes and bishops but by commerce--have been subject to two kinds of validation: social, coming from the audience, and historical, coming from how those composers believe music ought to evolve. Implicit in this latter view is "historicism," the doctrine that there is an engine of change driving history in a particular direction.

That is how it must have seemed to Franz Brendel, whom Taruskin credits as the pioneer of musical historicism. Brendel, writing his own history of music in the middle of the nineteenth century, could look back on several decades of growth in harmonic and orchestral complexity, of advance in keyboard technique and construction, and of expansion among institutions promoting amateur music-making. Progress still seemed inescapable to Schoenberg in 1908, as he took what he regarded as the logical and necessary leap into "atonality" (a term Taruskin rightly mistrusts, since no music can totally lack special motifs, intervals or notes). Forty years later, the same dynamism was again felt by Pierre Boulez. And even now, if we can no longer believe music is heading in a single direction, we might want a new piece to be moving somewhere. This is because historicism is not a dogma but a consequence of living in a musical world where classics are venerated--a world in which the new has to justify itself by being in some measure the same as the old (achieving a comparable level of distinction) and in some measure different. If, therefore, all composers today are historicists, all who want to be heard depend also on the support of some kind of society, which might include universities, foundations, performers, publishers and radio stations.

It is evident throughout the book that Taruskin views music as social discourse, though his society is chiefly one of listeners: of patrons, critics, historians and musicologists, and of contemporary audiences, responding, say, to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in ways that have been determined not only by Beethoven (though, indeed, by him more than anyone else) but also by analysts who have elucidated the work's unity and even to some degree by earlier composers, such as Mozart, to whom Beethoven listened. There is a glancing nod, as well, to "the 'interpretations' of master performers," but none are so much as named, and the contributions of performing musicians--or of instrument makers, music publishers, teachers, architects, agents, managers, record producers, broadcasters--are scarcely considered. In his introduction Taruskin quotes Anthony Trollope's fond memory of a servant who came each morning with coffee so that the writer could be at work at 5:30, and remarks, "Quite a few coffee porters, so to speak, will figure in the pages that follow." But they do not. This is a history of composers and even more so of compositions. It is a great expounding--much of it in the present tense--of what we can hear.

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